Balancing the Act: ADCQ newsletter -

School students and discrimination

This article first appeared in Balancing the Act, Issue 10, December 2000, page 4.


The law protects school students from unfair discrimination and sexual harassment at school, in their casual jobs, while on work experience and in other areas of their lives. If a person is treated unfairly for reasons such as their sex, race, age, sexuality or the fact that they have a disability, they have been discriminated against and have the right to make a complaint.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination happens when someone singles out another and treats them badly because they happen to belong to a particular group of people.

It means that they are not treated as an individual with their own personality and talents. Instead they are treated unfairly because assumptions are made about them because they happen to be a girl or a boy; an Asian or Aboriginal person; a person who has epilepsy or cerebral palsy - to name just a few examples.

Discrimination can be hurtful and humiliating. It can mean people miss out on educational opportunities or jobs because of someone else's prejudice and intolerance.

Which types of discrimination are against the law?

The Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 protects people if, for example, they are treated badly because they are a girl or boy, are too young or too old, are pregnant, are a parent, are married or single, are breastfeeding, have a disability or illness, are a particular nationality or descent, belong to a particular religious group, are gay or lesbian, have particular political beliefs, engage in union activity or are associated with someone who has one of these attributes.

Which schools are included?

All Queensland government state school students are protected against unfair discrimination at school, in any of the examples just mentioned. Non-government school students are protected only if they are treated unfairly because of their race or because they have a disability.

What aspects of school life are covered?

If a person is discriminated against when they try to enrol in a school or course, they can make a complaint.

A person may complain if they are punished in a discriminatory way; if they are not allowed to join particular school activities for discriminatory reasons; or if their teacher or a member of staff makes fun of them or treats them badly because of their sex, race, disability etc.

What about school sport?

Until a person turns 12, they have the right to play any sport they want at school. If they are good enough to get into the team, it does not matter whether they are a boy or a girl. Once a person turns 12, boys or girls can be excluded from some sports particularly where there is a lot of body-contact involved.

What is sexual harassment?

If someone touches another person in a sleazy way or says things about the way they look and it makes them feel frightened, embarrassed or uncomfortable, they have been sexually harassed. Sexual harassment can be a form of bullying that is used by one group of school students against another to put them down or 'keep them in their place'.

It can take many forms and a person can complain if either a member of the school staff or a student treats them in this way. Many schools now have special people that students can approach for advice about sexual harassment. The important thing to remember is no one has to put up with it.

What about discrimination at work?

If a person is sexually harassed or treated unfairly for a discriminatory reason at work they can make a complaint. It does not matter whether they are casual or part-time or even on work experience, anti-discrimination laws protect people's rights.

For example, if an employer cuts back a persons hours or sacks them because they turned 16, they could bring an age discrimination complaint.

If someone were refused a job at the local garage because they were a girl or at the hairdresser's because they were a boy, they could complain of sex discrimination. If they were not considered for a job at the supermarket because they were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or Chinese, that is racial discrimination.

Employers should give everyone a fair go. They should look at abilities and skills rather than personal things such as race or age that have nothing to do with the job.

Just as employers should give everyone a fair go, schools should also. They must make sure that students are treated fairly and not singled out in any way on the basis of their sex or race or age etc.

For further information about school students and discrimination, contact the Commission.